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R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Convening for Human Centered Design

There is a lot of information, including on our own EA Learning site about respectful research. But one area that is still underdeveloped (including in many IRB requirements) are guidelines for convening respondents. We know that we have to protect respondent privacy, and we know that we have to ensure their responses are voluntary when we interview them- but what if we are scaring them by our convening methods and we don't even know it?


This concern first came to my attention at a conference when I heard the CEO of a large multinational consumer product company talk about following a woman from a market in Africa into her home. His objective was to observe how she did some of the household chores that his company's products try to make simpler. But I thought about this woman being "followed" home, even with her consent. How could she say no to this older man who seemed very wealthy and powerful? Was he in a black SUV? How did that make her feel as her neighbors saw her approaching her home in the car with this man, perhaps with an entourage?

The problem with the "hype" around Human Centered Design- well, one problem, is that many organizations have interpret this as a free pass to talk to customers without the proper guidance. I am the first to encourage that we all speak to each other, and that each of us reach outside our own comfort zone to get to know new people, stories and ideas. For companies, getting close to customers is critical to ensuring that products and services are designed appropriately. The world needs this. But we also must consider ethics along the way.

Here in NYC we often work with immigrants, and we have learned that fear keeps many from coming to activities (focus groups, interviews) that we convene. Instead we have to work through trusted community partners and ensure that they are clear about the purpose of the meeting. But in some contexts, we do not always have a trusted channel, or even the name or contact information of customers. How do you know who uses your soap? or whether the person using your mobile wallet is a woman or if she lives near or far?

In Tanzania a few weeks ago, we convened mobile money users to some public restaurants for discussions. I asked one woman whether she was nervous coming to this place upon our invitation. After all, she didn't know us personally. "A little", she replied, "but because it is an open place, I was not too worried." After that, I was in Quito where we invited some people from outside the capital to join us for a focus group. We provided a private car service, since the roads had been damaged from the earthquake. Upon their arrival, I asked, "what did you all think when you received our call?"One woman said, she was nervous about getting in the car with a strange man. It wasn't until she saw that a nurse from the clinic where she works got in the car that her fears were allayed.

We can all get very excited about interviewing, observing and involving clients in our processes, but we should keep in mind that how we do this matters to respondents, and we want to implement measures to avoid intimidating, or even frightening clients.

For those new to this topic, the Lean Research Framework from MIT's D-Lab, in collaboration with Tufts University's Fletcher School and the Feinstein International Center is a good place to start. It underscores the importance of making research rigorous, respectful, relevant and right-sized. You can start right away by reviewing the Lean Research Declaration and considering signing on. A next step is to start thinking about all the steps in the process, including convening, to ensure that the clients are treated fairly and with the appropriate respect.

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